Nerd Merit Badges, Swallows and Amazons (Zine-Style), and Twinchies

Randy and I want to make and sell merit badges for nerds. There’ll be a merit badge for knowing regular expressions. A merit badge for open-source committing. Merit badges for knowing COBOL, and maybe for knowing what command-G does on line printers. There will merit badges for reading Tengwar, speaking Klingon, and rolling twenties.

I want these badges to be exactly the same as “real” merit badges — an inch and a half in diameter, 100% covered in embroidery. I want them to be small, so you can fit a bunch of them on your sleeve. They’ll be velcro-backed, so you can stick a square of velcro on the back of your MacBook Pro and show off your Ruby Core and Textmate Bundle Author merit badges at Starbucks!

Here’s a sample patch of the Tikaro Interactive “gearxel” that American Patch and Emblem stitched up for us as a test. We wanted to know how much resolution we can get in an inch (a lot, as it turns out!)


The Scouts call these “spoof” merit badges, and there’s already a lot of them made. Kate’s knitting friend Susan (check out her girl-scout merit-badge sash!) told my about the awesome Mama Merit Badges, too. (My favorites: the “breastfeeding” badge, and the “cross country travel with infant” merit badge.)

However, the undisputed leaders of the merit-badgers out there are Carolee and Jennie Pod, from Pod Post in San Francisco. Pod Post does mail art — they make cool things, put them in envelopes with awesome stamps and stickers all over them. Plus, they make books, and zines, and crafts, and generally it seems to be “Swallows and Amazons” except with paper, staplers, and library paste. For a craft convention in San Francisco, they made a TRULY AWESOME set of “printmaking”, “zinemaking”, and “correspondence” merit badges, then they SEWED THEM TO SASHES:


First of all, those merit badges are great (you can see them all and buy them here.) Second, the execution with the sashes is fantastic. And that LOGO! That London-in-wartime logo, with all the letterbox cues and the fact that UPON FURTHER INSPECTION, IT’S A PEN NIB!? Come on, people, I’m not made of stone.

I sent them a breathless note, since as far as I’m concerned the more I do computers the more I also enjoy doing things the old, hard, analog way, and I think “mail art” is right along the same lines. In return, they sent me an entire freaking MAIL ART CARE PACKAGE, including their zine, and a little hand-stitched notebook made with engineering graph paper and pages from old dictionaries. Kate thought this was really cool, particularly since she’s been cutting, folding, and assembling her own envelopes for Lydia to use. We think the Pod Pod Post folks are super-awesome.

And — did I mention? — I freaking love that logo. Yesterday I stitched up what Janet Perry calls a “Twinchy”, which is a two-inch-square piece of needlepoint. Two inches goes fast, even on eighteen-count canvas: I was able to do the art in Pixen in the morning and finish stitching up the background in the evening. Here it is, before I stick it into the envelope to go to San Francisco:

Pod Pod Twinchy

So, to recap: NERD MERIT BADGES! Small enough to fit on your sleeve or on your laptop. Amaze your friends, irritate your enemies, demonstrate to the world that the years you spent learning COBOL at that one bank job has actually resulted in a little, tiny trophy. And please, let me know your suggestions!

If you have suggestions for badges, leave a comment — or better yet, follow “Nerdmeritbadges” on Twitter, and send an @reply (which will make you eligible for the Twitter merit badge!)

UPDATE, April 2010: noticeably missing from this blog post is a mention of the Onder of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above Average Physique, because they are the ones that made us think “hey, we should do something like those, except that actually exist! Their badges are hilarious and authentically science-y, and you should check them out!

Nerd Merit Badges, Swallows and Amazons (Zine-Style), and Twinchies

Crafts Involving Sterno, Wizards, and Coffee


December really has turned into Sterno craft month. It turns out that it’s easy and fun to upgrade your winter crafts with FIRE, HUMANITY’S WEAPON AGAINST THE FROZEN AND BRUTAL WILDERNESS. For instance, my brother Oliver is in town (hurrah!), and he came over to build graham-cracker gingerbread houses with us. First, we decided that we wanted to build an Awesome Wizard’s Keep, because Awesome Keeps are where Awesome Wizards hang out.

From there to the fearsome and terrible TOWER OF STERNO was just a short, logical step:

The Tower of Sterno

Oliver has been painting mandalas, and so he was able to shave the graham crackers into perfect little octagons. The crenelations are all his, too. I had planned on putting some little marshmallow heads on the little pretzel pikes, but overall the Tower of Sterno doesn’t really give off the grim, foreboding aspect that we had been shooting for. I thought maybe if we put a little marzipan wizard out in front, shooting lightning bolts at a hovering dragon, that might give the whole thing the aura of 1970s van-mural majesty I had in mind. Perhaps graham crackers and royal icing is not the medium for Heavy-Metal Awesomeness.

So we decided to just toast some marshmallows instead:

Lydia and the Tower of Sterno

Then, on Christmas, I received the long-awaited Yama 3-cup tabletop vacuum coffee brewer that I had asked Santa for. Hurrah! Oliver and I set it up, carefully replacing the included alcohol burner with the same trusty can of Sterno:

Siphon Filter!

The vacuum coffee brewer worked really great, though I was too engrossed in the bubbling and boiling and chemistry going on that I forgot to take any pictures of the actual coffee (here’s a good photoset of a vacuum brewer in action.)

Okay, so the project is all coming together really well. Today, Oliver, Matt, Randy, Lydia and I went to The Fire Store in Coatesville (here’s a photoset of my last visit.) Matt bought a Pelican case for his video camera; Randy snapped pictures of an actual fubar (I think it may have been a titanium fubar), and Oliver picked up a “Pocket Homeland Defense Operations Manual”, for which he got questioned at checkout.

I bought a foam-lined flight case for the siphon pot’s laboratory-style glassware, because EVERYTHING looks cooler in a foam-lined flight case, and so it’ll survive rough terrain in the sidecar:

Vacuum coffee pot in Pelican case

Okay, so now THAT part is complete, and I can find a suitable sidecar mounting point. On to the propane tank, the wok burner, and a brazing up a wire-mesh basket for the bean roaster. Onward and upward!

Hmm, if I’m going to mount the pots on the motorcycle, I’m going to need to replace the pot’s stand with some laboratory glassware stands. There’s a great big laboratory-supply company in West Chester, and a friendly local blogger who runs their website, so I’m going to ask him what the official name is for “a right-angled flask holder grabby thing, suitable for inserting into a countersunk galvanized pipe so you tan take it in or pull it out.” I bet there’s a name for that, like a “Hachtsenfeffer stand” or something.

Crafts Involving Sterno, Wizards, and Coffee

West Chester Guerilla Drive-In Special Winter Widescreen Showing: THE THING

thethingposter.jpgThe scariest movie ever made — and that’s just a fact — is John Carpenter’s The Thing, about a shape-shifting alien buried in Antarctic ice for thousands of years, until it’s dug up by a team of scientists. Carpenter’s aim was to create a horror movie with a group of competent, educated protagonists, rather than screaming co-eds. It’s tense, claustrophobic, and unbelievably, creatively gory. When cornered, Thing impostors erupt in a cloud of tentacles, teeth, and shapeshifting, spider-legged horror that would have killed me dead on the spot if I had been taken to see the movie in 1982. This movie makes 1979’s Alien look like My Pretty Pony. It’s one of the canonical “Kill It With Fire” trope movies.

It’s also required viewing, my friend Alejandro tells me, for recruits newly assigned to McMurdo Station in Antartica. Eesh!

Scope lensAnyhow, I discovered that Swank Motion Pictures in Illinois does indeed have a 16MM print of The Thing. And not only a print, but a “Scope” print, which means that the widescreen image has been compressed into the square space on the film stock. You need a special “scope” lens to widen the image to the correct widescreen format — and now I own one! Thanks very much to Ted the Fiddler, projectionist from the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, for getting me set up with a supplier. The lens arrived in an awesome pebbbled-vinyl case lined with red velveteen, and the number “2” hand-painted on the top.

So, what does this all mean? It means that the West Chester Guerilla Drive-In will be having its first ever winter showing. I’ll wait for a deep fall of snow. The first snowy Friday or Saturday night, we’ll be showing John Carpenter’s The Thing in glowing, rich, lifelike color; widescreen — somewhere in the middle of a remote snowfield, and you’ll need to walk across the snowy tundra to get there. JUST LIKE KURT RUSSELL.

For your trip across the snowfield, bring your fur-trimmed parka, a hand-warmer (or a flamethrower), and a petri dish. Guerilla Drive-In members will get a last-minute email with the date and location. For this showing, we can skip the formalities of the MacGuffin; send me an email if you’d like to come!

Here’s the trailer:

…and here’s a collection of the most intense parts from the movie. For god’s sake, don’t watch it unless you know what you’re doing! It’s bad enough in the safety of your own home. Imagine watching this thing in the exposed, arctic darkness. Anything could be out there in that darkness, and with the snow all around you’d probably hear it coming before you could see it…

See you there!

West Chester Guerilla Drive-In Special Winter Widescreen Showing: THE THING

Ave Beaker! Torrituri te Salutant!

I don’t want to say much about where the Sterno craft project is heading, except that it’s evolving into something beautiful involving siphon coffee, a go-anywhere coffee roaster, propane wok burners, and of course motorcycle sidecars. And maybe, just maybe, a mini gas turbine (turn up your speakers and skip to 3:20). Watching this project come together makes me feel like Johannes Kepler must have felt watching the planets’ mystical alignment.

Words cannot really adequately express the way this project makes me feel. Fortunately, Beaker can easily express it:

NB: Work still proceeding on the viking-ship s’mores. Anyone interested in a trip to the Painted Plate?

Ave Beaker! Torrituri te Salutant!

Ice Cream + Fire, Winter Edition: suggestions for s’mores cookers?

The web-development space I share is above beloved local ice-cream-and-donut shop West Chester Scoop. We named it "@superscoop" on Twitter. West Chester Scoop is a great ice-cream-and-donut shop: they’ve won every local “best dessert” award I’m aware of in the past year that they’ve been open.

You might not know it, but they have a bright, cheerful parlor downstairs (with a gas fire!) Here’s a panorama I made with Pano, the iPhone panorama app — the door up the stairs to @superscoop is on the right:

1st-floor panorama (1)

Like every ice cream shop, Scoop is slow in the winter. We thought they could investigate having softer lighting, comfy chairs, satellite radio, and maybe hot chocolate, hot cider, and s’mores, especially in the afternoons and evenings. This is for selfish reasons: when Kate and I have date night, I want to go sit by the fire someplace and talk, do some needlepoint, have some hot chocolate, maybe roast a marshmallow over a sweet ninja sterno hibachi (thanks for the idea, bestmochalatte!)

Okay, focusing in just on the s’mores thing for a minute: every s’mores hibachi is the same one you’ve already seen everywhere. There is great room for improvement here. For instance, what if you could toast your marshmallows over a TINY 55-GALLON HOBO DRUM? Why, the marshmallow forks could be shaped like tiny bindle sticks!

Like all ideas involving fire, this is a fantastic idea with absolutely no drawbacks.

How could this be realized? Well, cans of sterno could go into bisque containers, like you can get across the street at The Painted Plate. So @superscoop colleague Randy and I went over to talk to Chet at West Chester’s friendly paint-your-own pottery store The Painted Plate at lunchtime:

Painted Plate

Chet agreed with us that bisque and fire is not a terrible combination (after all, many of his pieces are already tea-light holders and what have you), so we brought back an unpainted hippo to use as a tester. We thought we’d never use a hippo as a s’mores furnace, but I’d happily toast a marshmallow over this happy hippo. Here it is, holding a standard sterno can:

Sterno Hippo S'Mores Hibachi: testing bisque + fire

There are some technical considerations here; for instance, I think that I’ll put sand in the bottom of the hippo, so that the lip of the sterno can will be level with the top of the hippo (it got HOT from contacting the flame.) Also, I think it would be best to securely attach the base to a round platter, to be absolutely certain it won’t tip. But right now, I need your suggestions for sterno holders! Here are our ideas so far

  • A miniature log campfire
  • A miniature 55-gallon drum
  • A clapped out Yugo up on blocks
  • A pyramid of tires
  • A pyramid of skulls
  • A mountain of hundred-dollar bills
  • A horrified snowman
  • A ninja, either on fire or guarding a sweet pool of flames
  • A nuclear cooling tower

What are we overlooking? Frankly, I’m not sure whether to stay away from kitsch (the miniature campfire is, you know, classy), or to EMBRACE the kitsch (the horrified snowman, engulfed in flames, which I’m guessing is already on sale at Spencer’s Gifts next to the “Mexican Horny Toads”.)

What does “tabletop fire” suggest to you?


Ice Cream + Fire, Winter Edition: suggestions for s’mores cookers?